In 1976 Ingmar Bergman released a 200 minute four part TV series starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. The Swedish director then edited the series for a 136 minute theatrical release, which is the version of Face to Face most people have seen. The movie shows the gradual nervous breakdown of Jenny (Ullmann), a psychiatrist currently living with her grandparents while her husband, also a psychiatrist, is lecturing in Chicago.
Jenny’s return to her grandparents’ house should be a happy event. She grew up there after the death of her parents, and her grandmother receives her with affection. But a meeting with a spectral one-eyed old woman on the staircase alerts the viewer to the fact that something is worrying Jenny’s mind. Whether real or a figment of her imagination, this figure becomes a recurring presence in her life.
At a party, Jenny meets Dr. Tomas Jacobi (Josephson). He’s interested in her, she’s hesitant but maybe her loneliness draws her to him. They have dinner and then drive to his place, only for Jenny to lash out against his intentions.
Later Jenny receives a call from a patient, who went to her former house hoping to find her there. Jenny finds her curled up in a corner and two men, apparently relatives, who attempt to rape her. With apparitions walking before her eyes and no one to lend support, Jenny takes an overdose of pills and peacefully waits for death.
In Face to Face reality and dreams dissolve into each other. Jenny’s suicide attempt allows Bergman to create a dream space where Jenny battles traumatic memories and confronts the people who’ve shaped her identity over life. The dreams are one of the film’s best elements. Without special effects, without exuberant imagery, firmly grounded on her day-to-day reality, Jenny’s dreams are however unsettling and claustrophobic. In one of my favourite dreams, Jenny meets all her patients in a little room in her grandparents’ apartment; Tomas, standing against a wall, smugly smiles and a patient peels her facial skin.
The role of Jenny is so demanding and complex that only a great actress like Liv Ullmann could do it justice. Face to Face is an amazing character study and she carries it on her shoulders. We quickly lose track of all the great scenes she shines in. In one of the most intense, she tells Tomas she was raped and proceeds to break down in a cry of pain. In a later scene she pretends to be her own grandmother and re-enacts a dialogue that may be from her childhood or just a fantasy.
Erland Josephson doesn’t have such an ostentatious role, but the serene personality he portrays is the perfect counterpoint to Ullmann’s expansive performance. Also of note is the short performance of Gunnar Björnstrand (known for playing Jöns in The Seventh Seal) as the grandfather.
Although the movie deals with a mental collapse it’s far less hysterical than one would imagine. Bergman knows how to make stories intimate and low key. A good decision was to get rid of the music. Then there is Sven Nykvist’s work on the cinematography, suffusing the world of the movie, where the sun seldom shines, with shadows and washed-out colours. Like in Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, he complements the movie with mood and atmosphere.
Face to Face is not an optimistic movie, although it’s life affirming in a very stoic way. Life is hell and we have to go on seems to be its message. Life offers no resolution or compensation. Near the end, Jenny admits the suicide attempt to her daughter. In someone else’s hands it would have been an emotional moment of closure for Jenny. But Bergman turns it into a final blow for Jenny to take. And from blow to blow life continues. Life must continue because, as bad as it may get, the alternative is much worse.
Ingmar Bergman later in life expressed dissatisfaction with this film. For him it seemed like a parody of his own work. It’s his opinion of course. But for me it’s one of his most interesting movies. I’ve always been fond of his rare incursions into fantasy and dreams, like The Seventh Seal and The Hour of the Wolf. Although better known for his realistic portraits of the human condition, Face to Face shows that he’s also an unsung master of fantasy and strangeness.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Erland Josephson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Liv Ullmann, Lena Olin, Aino Taube
Runtime: 136 min